One of the common questions that will always be asked is “should I bulk or should I cut?”
Just do a quick search on the bodybuilding.com forums and you’ll get a mound of results from many young(er) guys promulgating the next step in their fitness journey.
Many beginners, primarily males, will often be exposed to strength training or bodybuilding by a friend, magazine, an old book or whatnot. Within a few days, an obsession with resembling the models they see in the media beats against their brain incessantly until they can no longer recite their ABC’s.
The reasons are bold and apparent. Some believe the girls are heartily attracted to large, muscle-bound men as the cover model sports a sexy figure on each side for the cover art.
Another belief is that large muscles, to a degree, equal success as bodybuilders prance around on stage with their trophies and fat checks in the latest Flex mag.
But, the main reason most guys wish to build an incredible physique is not that they think it will win them the girl or because of a belief it will make them successful. No, it’s primarily due to either:
- A serious competitive drive they garnered as a result of participating in athletics growing up (and some are just naturally competitive regardless athletics).
- A deep-seated insecurity with their appearance.
Now regardless of the reasons (there are more – the above are just some common examples), the cycle normally goes something like this.
Typical Downward Spiral
Discover strength training/bodybuilding/fitness.
Start working out haphazardly (hopefully avoiding injury).
Learn about the popular bulking and cutting strategies used in bodybuilding.
Attempt one or the other without much knowledge as to how or why.
Try again – spin their wheels
Try again – either do a bit better or spin their wheels some more
Eat some donuts
Find a new hobby
Keep going until it all works out (very rare).
The truth is that most won’t make it past their initial bulk and cut experiment. If they do, many may find themselves in a perpetual state of indecision about what to do next.
It’s like they’re asking all these questions but no answers seem to fit. Or they could possibly fit, but they can’t locate the round peg for their round hole.
It doesn’t make sense – any of it.
While a select few make stellar progress in the face of suboptimal training and nutrient intake, most others fall to the wayside wondering what the secrets are and how much they cost. This is how millions are made each year – selling secrets that aren’t really secrets at all.
Let’s get started with a question I received last week and I’ll give my opinion and then elaborate fully with my beliefs about bulking and cutting periods and whether or not they are for you.
I have friends who are really skinny, yet don’t have a 6 pack and want one. They are trying to lose even more fat to get it. I myself don’t even know if losing fat or building muscle will help me reach my goals, as I don’t really know what I’d look like if I went either way. Sometimes I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels.
Bulking and Cutting Defined + Other Stuff
Briefly, bulking refers to the period, also known as the offseason by competition bodybuilders, in which one trains regularly and consumes more energy (read: food) in hopes of adding slabs of red meat to their skeletal structure.
There are many ways to go about it. Some make a sloppy attempt at gaining weight – their jaws literally turn into a food funnel and no plate ever goes to the sink with any remains for disposal. It’s not unheard of for someone to gain 20-30lbs (varies wildly) in the name of growing their muscles over a 16-20 week period.
Then, we have others who practice a more conservative approach – tracking their intake, and timing meals with hopes of gaining 1-2 pounds of muscle per month.
We also encounter the confused teen that, regardless of wondrous intent, believes endless amounts of clean food will lead to 100% pure muscle gains because the carbs are slow-digesting or complex.
Cutting refers to the period of time spent losing weight when the offseason ends. During this phase of the cycle, one will attempt to shed the excess weight gained as a result of continual force-feeding from the previous months.
Their hope is they’ll soon reveal a newly-chiseled, Greek-like physique.
For many, not all though, this is where the obsessive tendencies begin to surface. Usually, it will start with an unrealistic goal. As a result of said unrealism, drastic measures are often taken. Some people really believe they can shed all the excess fat they gained over 5 months in just 6-8 weeks time with NO muscle loss.
While this is perfectly doable for certain situations (an obese person goes on a PSMF diet – look at Lyle’s Rapid Fat Loss Handbook to see what I mean), it’s highly unrealistic for many.
The diet typically becomes very strict and restricted – which creates many psychological problems in itself.
For the novice trainee, it’s not always a pretty picture because the end result often turns into a big disappointment and they end up exactly where they started.
Someone creates an outlandish goal, only to fail, and fail hard. They expect to be ready for an event or for summer and realize they were way fatter than estimated and it will likely take longer to reach their idealistic aesthetic state than previously planned.
Bulking and Age
I suppose the next areas we should address are age and experience.
Let’s start with age.
Most underweight teenage boys could actually benefit from a supposed “bulking” period for two reasons. They’ll get to a healthy weight rather quickly and if they decide to train during said overfeeding occurs, their extremely elevated hormonal system will take care of making sure those extra calories lead to the accrual of new lean body mass.
In fact, it’s not unheard of for guys just getting into weight training to gain 20-25 pounds over a year or so – lots of it being lean body mass.
Yes, Mother Nature is awesome.
As one gets older, we know that a constant surplus of calories will not always have such positive effects, unless of course we sprung from the wildly coveted, elitist gene pool.
If you’re that lucky, stop reading now; go sit on your rump, eat some pie whilst dreaming of squatting and just watch your seems burst with new muscle growth.
What we know here is this: the younger you are, in general, the higher levels of certain hormones like testosterone will be. Over time, the natural levels will slowly decrease, thus the ability to add new muscle. It happens.
So, if you’re a young, hormone-enraged male, a steady surplus of calories plus heavy progressive overload is usually okay. Get strong and big.
While I referenced underweight male teens in the above example, there are other confounders. You see, even though a large surplus (aka bulking) can be beneficial for some, it’s not the magic bullet by any means. What about those who’ve blasted past the initial weight gain of 15-20 pounds?
Is an all-out bulk the answer for everyone? Err, umm, probably not.
According to Lyle, and Alan in this article, the rates of muscle gain will come to a halt after the first few years. To make it easy, Lyle’s model suggests one could potentially gain 30-37 pounds of muscle in their first two years assuming the variables (training, diet, rest and recovery) are optimal.
That’s a lot of lean tissue one could add to their frame in such a short time.
The body will use ingested energy for a few purposes. Those being to repair and store for later use.
And here’s the downside.
Once recovery needs are met, the excess is stored. I think we can easily see how as one progresses, less of a surplus is going to be needed. It only makes sense as one nears their genetic limits – if they don’t require less food overall, they will require less of a surplus when aiming for strength and size increases.
So a general rule is this: as one progresses, large surpluses are no longer needed and will become more detrimental than beneficial if maintaining a certain look is important to you.
Give Me A Formula!
Frankly there are no clear-cut answers and I’m sorry if you were looking for one.
However, there are a few ways to solving this riddle for yourself and I’d like to spur you in the right direction.
Let’s split up the general aesthetic-focused community into three segments.
Rank beginners, Intermediates and advanced trainees.
Beginners – If you’re brand new to weight training and you’d like to gain some muscle mass, there are generally two options I’d recommend.
Utilize a moderate surplus with a heavy focus on making protein requirements. With this approach, you will know your maintenance intake and aim to eat 400-600 calories over it daily. Your protein intake should be around 1+ gram per pound of bodyweight and then just fill in the rest with the energy intake of your choice. Some folks like Alan recommend an intake of .4 – .5 grams per pound of body weight for fat intake. Others recommend 15-20% of the total caloric intake.
Frankly, I don’t care too much as long as you’re eating enough, getting your protein, essential fatty acids (fish oils) and that the majority of your diet consists of whole foods such as fruit, veggies, dairy, eggs, and meat.
Another plan of attack is to take a more relaxed approach without counting every single calorie. With most beginners, but not all, a recomp effect will occur in which they’ll burn fat and build some strength and muscle simultaneously.
If you take the second approach, do three things.
- Ensure adequate protein intake
- Focus on whole foods, eating well around training
- Monitor your weight gain or loss and adjust your eating habits to ensure you’re not losing weight.
Intermediates – Oh the joyous place you’re at. You’re finally past the beginner phase and actually look like you work out but still in search of more muscle and more strength.
The downside is the newbie gains are gone forever. Gone are the days in which you can stuff your face to your heart’s content without a week’s worth of butt jiggle.
So an all-out bulk of 500+ kcals over maintenance each day is probably not in your best interest. In fact, I believe a very solid approach here is the target body weight method Daniel Roberts wrote about here. Upon re-reading an old AARR from January 2009, Alan and Robert share similar ideologies. I can dig it.
Basically, if you’ve set a reasonable goal of adding 5-10lbs of muscle over the next year, it’s definitely doable according to the model for mass gain I mentioned above in Lyles’ article.
In short it looks like this:
Set a reasonable goal – gain 10 pounds over 10-12 months.
Set calorie intake for what you wish to weigh – If you’re extremely active and you maintain on 18 kcals per pound and you weigh 180 pounds, that’s a maintenance intake of 3240. If your goal is to weigh 190 pounds at a similar body composition by the year’s end, 190×18 = 3420 kcal. Now how you divvy this up over your training and rest days is up to you.
I’d personally put more of the calories around my training and eat a little bit less on the off days*. But that’s a personal preference and no one says you have to do it this way. Just don’t make drastic swings in your intake. For instance, don’t consume 5000 kcal on your training days and 1500 on your off days.
I know that seems extreme but it’s been done and in my view, it’s just not practical.
*I always place more calories around training and eat a bit less on off days. This way, I can take advantage of the partitioning effects a solid workout can yield. This may also help keep fat gain at bay for those who strive for more leaner gains (see links below).
Advanced Trainees – Now things have come to a screeching halt. Training is becoming very taxing but you look awesome and everyone stares at you in jealousy. The traditional bulking and cutting cycles are completely out at this stage of the game unless, of course, you’re taking anabolics. If that’s the case, then the rules change because your muscular ceiling will only be limited by the amount of drugs you can manage to withstand/afford.
Looking back at the model above, the most muscle one is able to gain in a year is anywhere from 2-3 pounds or slightly more depending on genetics, but for the most part, there’s not much more room for a natural.
Therefore, if muscle gain is the goal here, I’d place my focus on strength first and at maintaining body weight second. Adding an extra shake or a few extra bites of ice cream on your training days will probably suffice in terms of the small(er) surplus one would need.
Another option is to use intermittent fasting ala Leangains to optimize the accrual of lean body mass whilst maintaining a lean physique. Take a look at Andreaz in this video. He is definitely an advanced trainee judging by his strength and level of muscle mass.
If you’re a young beginner and have an explicit goal of building a lot of muscle mass, I would place your focus on ensuring your dietary needs are met and then some. The gains to be had by a young male who trains sensibly and eats enough are beyond incredible. Plus, you won’t always have the naturally high levels of testosterone you have now – so it makes sense to take advantage of the naturally elevated hormone levels.
I’d say for most young beginners, it’s perfectly okay to focus on adding weight to their frame in increments of .5-1 pound per week for a good while. Plenty of food plus weight training will yield very positive effects.
However, a bulk in this sense shouldn’t mean you eat everything in sight, but simply a very well-rounded, wholesome intake that meets and exceeds expenditure.
On another note, if said beginner is fairly overweight, utilizing a maintenance approach with decent pre and post-workout nutrition is a better option to prevent excess fat gain.
One more scenario where I think “bulking” is fairly practical is in the sport of powerlifting. Most powerlifters aren’t too worried about their aesthetics. In this sport, the most important objectives are moving the most weight and making weigh-ins for their competitive meets.
If you’re a bit self-conscious about being skinny fat, dieting down to see your abs first is probably not in your best interest. I’d rather see this person focus on eating well, getting stronger and letting the magical recomp effects of being a newbie have their way with you.
For the beginner who may not be a spring chicken any longer, one might benefit from a less aggressive approach whereas the proposed surplus is smaller (200-300 kcals daily) until they reach intermediate status in which they could utilize a cyclical diet with plenty of nutrients around workouts.
If you’re further along and like to maintain a certain level of leanness year-round, then a consistent dose of excess calories is probably not on the menu for you and are likely be better suited for a long-term cyclical approach in which the diet is optimized for muscle gains whilst keeping body fat in check. Just remember gains will be much slower than when plenty of calories are available.
How do you feel? Do you practice the traditional bulk and cut cycles or do you take a more moderate approach?